like Cartwright and Reigning Sound—he found new greatness with his solo work. His Disco Outlaw is rock ‘n’ roll as natural as Charlie Feathers and Johnny Thunders and he’ll play his first show in Los Angeles in ten years tonight at the Echoplex. This interview by Chris Ziegler." /> L.A. Record


November 3rd, 2009 | Interviews

jonny bell

Download: Jack Oblivian “Ditch Road”


(from Disco Outlaw out now on Goner)

Jack Oblivian got his last name with Eric and Greg and their Popular Favorites but—like Cartwright and Reigning Sound—he found new greatness with his solo work. His Disco Outlaw is rock ‘n’ roll as natural as Charlie Feathers and Johnny Thunders and he’ll play his first show in Los Angeles in ten years tonight at the Echoplex. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

What’s your best blind pick-up line? To someone you’ve never met before?
Jack Oblivian (guitar/vocals): I always have a problem remembering names so I just say, ‘Hey, good-lookin’.’ Even if she’s drunk and puking you just say, ‘Are you gonna be okay, good-lookin’?’
How often are you laying lines on some girl who’s puking?
Jack Oblivian: I don’t know. It’s your responsibility to try to take care of them before you get them out of your house.
What were you like when you first got to Memphis? Like the day you got off the bus?
Jack Oblivian: I’d been there a few times when I was a kid. Since I was 12, I would come see these big shows—I think my first one was Rush. My mom was always afraid of me coming to these concerts and it was no big deal but I think when I saw Van Halen—the early version of Van Halen—that’s when I felt like I was at a concert that I was like, ‘Oh, this is what my mom is talking about.’ You could see whiskey bottles flying in the air—a really rowdy crowd. I really miss the golden age. By the time I was doing that, it was like the early ‘80s. I really wanted to see Kiss and AC/DC—Kiss was the thing I got into when I was like ten years old. I started out with comic books and then I moved over to the shelf on the right—so instead of becoming a comic geek I was a music fan. By the time the early ‘80s got here, music—as far as the big arena music—I didn’t like it that much. Going to places like this punk club called Antenna, I’d see the bands right up close and that was really exciting. That’s what drew me here. I think it was after I got out of high school that I moved here but I was always making trips.
What was the point of no return? Where you decided your life was going to be about music?
Jack Oblivian: I think it was since I was a little kid, even before I knew how to play. But as I got older and I moved here and actually tried—after a few years I realized I was working a crappy job and it wasn’t going anywhere and that’s when I figured out, ‘Well, am I going to keep doing this?’ So many years gone by and I realize, ‘Shit, this is what I’ve been doing.’ I think even if I wasn’t playing, I would be in it in some form or fashion.
Like producing?
Yeah, if I knew how. Or writing like you. That’s kind of my whole thing into music. At my impressionable age of 11 or 12 I would get these—like in Mississippi you could get Creem or Hit Parade—so I’d read about all these bands. The only ones you would hear about in Corinth were like Journey. I didn’t really hear the Ramones and those new wave type bands—the New York Dolls or whatever—until a few years later when I had a friend in high school who had an uncle who had all those records. So I went over to his house and all those records that I read about for years, he had ‘em all. I’d read about the bands—breaking up or making music—but I never actually heard them.
What was that weekend like? ‘Play me this! Play me that!’
Jack Oblivian: Yeah—we ended up being in a band together and that guy is Jimbo Mathus who was in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. That was Jimbo. Now when he talks about his music impressionable age, he doesn’t mention New York Dolls and all that stuff. And I’m still a friend of his—he’d say just blues and bluegrass and he leaves out all that. But he was like the biggest rocker at school.
Did he have a nickname?
Jack Oblivian: We had a nickname we called him that he didn’t like! I don’t know if I should say it—he might get mad.
Did you have a nickname?
Jack Oblivian: I had one when I was a little kid. Not when I was a teenager, but I had one. We had older cousins. Me and the younger cousin played music together and all these older cousins would pick on us. My cousins name was ‘Rut’ and mine was ‘Squoosh-head.’
Jack Oblivian: And then it later changed to ‘Squoosh.’ I’d say, ‘Why do you call me Squoosh-head?’ ‘Because your head looks like it’s been squooshed.’ Luckily by the time I got to junior high they had graduated so the name kinda went away. It was frightening just to walk across the yard if you see them—if it was one, it was okay but if you see two or three of them together, you immediately have to start running ‘cause they’re going to chase you. ‘There goes Squoosh-head! Catch him!’
Did you ever think of knocking out a song called ‘Squoosh-head Blues’?
Jack Oblivian: I thought about it, but I don’t want to bring the name back.
What three things do you think you have to happen in your life in order to write good songs?
Jack Oblivian: I don’t know—that’s a good question though. I think a lot of times when you want to write a song, you can’t. And then other times it’s just begging to come out and you pick up a guitar and it seems like it ain’t really nothing—just two or three chords—but then you find out later it is something. It’s just like going through something where you’ve had some things happen around you or with you—you’ve just been affected by it. Something’s gotta mark on you.
The very first song you ever wrote was for your cat—what came next? Songs about girls? Cars?
Jack Oblivian: I think girls followed next. I think the cat song was kind of forced. I was up in the attic and I was reading the Hit Parader where it has the song lyrics in the back to the hit songs of the day. I thought, ‘There’s not too much to this stuff.’ Without the music it just looks like ‘Baby, baby, oh yeah!’ So the cat walks by and I thought, ‘I’m gonna write a song called “Alley Cat.”’ I can’t remember how it went but I just did it the same way: ‘Alley cat, oh yeah!’ and shit like that.
What’s the easiest thing to write about?
Jack Oblivian: I think if I try to write too much about my real self, I get stumped. It’s like there’s not enough paper to get it all down, and I’ve done that before too—where I’ve had like three sheets of lyrics and I think, ‘I can’t put all this in a song.’ But you gotta step outside yourself and take a look. You know who you are, but somebody listening on the radio, they don’t really know. If you’re thinking too hard, you can’t do anything at all. A lot of times—sorta similar to a ‘Tenacious D’ episode—a lot of times I get the guitar and a tape recorder and push record to start writing a song but there’s just nothing there. It just don’t happen that way. You can’t just say, ‘Tomorrow I get off work at 5 and I’m gonna write a song!’ You can but it’s probably not that good.
Do you ever run out of a bar bathroom and call your voicemail and sing a riff into it?
Jack Oblivian: That’s a good idea. I never thought of that. A lot of times when something works out, it kinda comes from somebody else’s idea. I was trying to learn a Chuck Berry song to sit in with these guys. I was always playing the same two songs and I wanted to learn a Chuck Berry song and I could see the chords and I was thinking, ‘I can probably play it but it might not be very well.’ Then all of a sudden I started playing something that became my own song. I had to go back to the Chuck Berry song and to see if I ripped it off. But no—there’s two of the same chords but it’s a totally different song. So that kinda got the wheel turning. If you’re a songwriter who can’t get it going, I think the best way is to check out songs by people you like and see how they work and maybe get something started. But just make sure you aren’t aping their exact song.
They asked Sam Phillips how to produce a good record and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about producing—but if you want rock ‘n’ roll, I can reach down and pull it out of your asshole.’
Jack Oblivian: Yeah—he had some attitude.
Is that the secret?
Jack Oblivian: I think that’s maybe his approach, so to speak.
Was Sun an eerie place when you worked there? Knowing all the history?
Jack Oblivian: Yeah—sometimes you forget about it. The first couple days it’s overwhelming. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how it’s the greatest job because when you work in the kitchen it doesn’t get busy til—well, busloads of people come through on tours, so occasionally it gets busy—but most of the time you clock in, get some coffee, and sit down and listen to music. I was thinking about it—why did I ever quit that job?
What job were you happiest to quit?
Jack Oblivian: There’s been a bunch of ‘em. There was a construction job. It was mutual—I quit and they were firing me. I worked there for like a week. These guys were kinda fucked up. My job was driving a truck around delivering tools to these welding worksites and after the second week I came in and they had a brand new truck. ‘This is the truck you’re going to drive—take care of it.’ The very first run I go all the way down the interstate to pick up some tools and then all they way back—and I forgot to take the emergency brake off. I just kept punching the gas, like, ‘Why wont this fucking thing go? This truck drives like shit!’ By the time I got back—like 25 miles—to the shop and started slowing down, I could smell something burning. ‘What is that burning? Smells like something’s on fire in the neighborhood!’ I pulled up in the driveway and smoke was shooting out of the wheels and I thought they were gonna kill me. One of the guys came out and he was like, ‘You’re coming with me!’ He got in a car and we’re doing like 80 mph down the street and I’m freaking out. Then he stopped and he turns around back to the shop and at that point I just wanted to get out of the car because I thought he might run off the road. But he was trying to keep me away from the big boss—the real boss who was probably going to shoot me. I said, ‘I think it’s better if I just leave.’ ‘Yeah, I think that’s a good idea—you better get out of here.’ But those guys—I didn’t feel bad about messing the truck up ‘cause they weren’t too cool. They kept referring to me as a drug dealer ‘cause I had sideburns. They’d keep saying, ‘Jack, we’re paying you more money than you’d make selling drugs in the street!’ ‘I don’t sell drugs. ‘Whatever, Jack!’
You’re lucky you didn’t have a mustache, too.
Jack Oblivian: Yeah, these guys were really fucking redneck.
Is that the most expensive thing you ever broke? Or the closest you’ve ever been to getting shot?
Jack Oblivian: The closest I ever got to being beat up, I think. I had a gun pulled on me when I was delivering pizzas, which was scary. I always tip the pizza guy good.
How much of this stuff ever turned into songs? Like ‘Ditch Road’—is that the song you wrote after you broke the truck?
Jack Oblivian: I think that was inspired by someone I knew who had an alcohol problem and everything was falling apart. But there’s a lot of Ditch Roads. When I was a kid there was a little dirt path near our house that people used for a shortcut. My family lived by this factory that makes pantyhose that my mother’s side of the family owns. My granddad started the business in the ‘50s with my five uncles and a couple of them took it over. But there was this beaten path along the side of the road—a ditch and it had a name called ‘Ditch Road.’ ‘Why is it called Ditch Road?’ Well, it’s because there’s a ditch by a road.
Have you ever seen a human body part in a pawn shop?
Jack Oblivian: No. Have you?
No but I heard about it. Like somebody pawns their prosthetic leg.
They’re hard up for money then. The few times I’ve actually tried to sell something to a pawn shop, they never offered enough money. Like one time it was a Silvertone amp and I think they wanted like five bucks. Another time, my high school class ring—and they didn’t even want it. Not even five dollars and I was like, ‘Fuckin’ shit!’
When was the last time you closed down a bar that wasn’t in Memphis?
Jack Oblivian: That happens a lot. When you’re in the band you get a little bit of privilege. But a lot of bars around here, if people are still partying they just lock the doors and make it look like it’s closed and let people stay.
Are they any places with a special stool they don’t let anybody else sit on?
Jack Oblivian: No, I don’t have an Elvis booth or anything like that. I may get a break on the bar tab every once in a while—or maybe I think it’s a break.
You said with your music you wanted to try and do something that was like a Salvador Dali painting but with one chord. What exactly are you talking about there?
I don’t know—I think I was just saying something. Maybe what I meant was dumbing it down. I got this new tune I’m working on called ‘Mass Confusion.’ I did it for the Oblivians when I thought we were gonna record.
The Oblivians were going to record?
Jack Oblivian: We were talking about recording a 7” before this tour but it never happened. I ended up doing the song with my band. When we tried to practice it with the Oblivians, we couldn’t do it. I thought I had dumbed it down enough because the Oblivians are really primitive. Kind of like we said earlier, when I’m inspired by someone else’s song—this would be compared to the Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion.’ It’s real simple but once the vocals get going it’s not the same—but you can tell it’s the red-headed stepchild of ‘Ball of Confusion.’ I think Tempations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’ is an epic masterpiece with all the strings and everything, and this is down to a five-piece and just really simple. But it still gets the same message of a world gone crazy.
An undying message.
Jack Oblivian: That song will never go out of style.
What do you think about this Oblivians renaissance?
Jack Oblivian: I don’t know, man. I can’t understand it myself. I think it’s just so simple that people just connect with it. It’s pretty weird that some little band years ago, people wont let it go away.
Do you want them to?
Jack Oblivian: No, I think it’s good. Naturally you would like for everything to be still in print and people still digging it. And if it happens with one of your things, I guess you’re lucky.
You were talking about the New York Dolls before—do you feel like a New York Doll yourself? A couple years too early with something everybody loves now?
Jack Oblivian: I don’t know. It’s maybe a little bit different from the New York Dolls situation. Shorter heels.
You said you toured Europe and people were flipping out with cameras like you were Bob Dylan.
Jack Oblivian: This was on the solo tour. We went to Serbia. There would be 2 or 3 people taking photos and then like 2 or 3 feet away there were people taking photos of you getting your photo taken—you don’t really know which way to look. We had such a hard time getting in the place at the border—it was actually kind of scary. We were trying to tell them we didn’t want to go—just let us go back! They had their automatic rifles out. I think they just wanted money. The booking agent just said, ‘Put 300 Euros on the dash and they’ll know that’s for them.’ We’re like, ‘We’re not gonna do that!’
Are the Oblivians ever coming to L.A.?
Jack Oblivian: We played a few months ago and we haven’t really talked about doing anything again. I’m not sure.
What would help convince everybody?
Jack Oblivian: I think if it was a bill with a couple bands that we really wanted to see—which would probably be bands that aren’t together anymore. That’s kind of what happened when the Gories said they would get together and we thought, ‘Well, we could stand playing a couple weeks and seeing the Gories every night.’
Have you heard that story about Alex Chilton dropping acid with Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson?
Jack Oblivian: Somebody told me that the other day. King Louie, he’s friends with Alex and we were talking about the Beach Boys—that he was still friends with them or at least was in the ‘90s when he was dating Peggy from the Gories and they were at Brian Wilson’s birthday party. That’s gotta be a trip hanging out with the Mansons doing acid.
What’s your own Beach Boys-meet-Manson moment?
Jack Oblivian: The Manson-Beach Boys sandwich? I don’t know—if I did, I probably shouldn’t say. I don’t think anything can top Manson. William Eggleston was up here one time playing the piano. ‘Course he could hardly play it. He just kind of hits it. He was really drunk, but everybody gathered around the piano. I haven’t seen him in a while. Somebody saw him the other day in an airport just sitting there. They didn’t talk to him. They said he was just sitting there like he was ready to go or maybe he was just lost.
Perfect Sound Forever did an Oblivians interview and asked Eric if he’d ever been arrested, psychotic, near death or bored—how about you?
Jack Oblivian: I’ve been bored. That happens a lot. I’m bored most of the time.
Are you bored more now that you’re older?
Jack Oblivian: Sometimes I get bored with the things I used to occupy myself with. My most boring times—probably with any kid—is when you’re too old for toys and too young for girls or to get a day job. When you’re 12 and 13—that’s when you start throwing rocks at windows to hear the crash. That’s when I started getting into rock because I was so bored. That was my cure for boredom. I’m still bored with life.
When was the last time you were lit only by candlelight?
In candlelight? It’s been a while. This apartment I have now, we’re on the same block as a TV station and a police precinct is right at the end of the street. A couple years ago there was a giant windstorm that came through town—people called it Hurricane Elvis. Usually when a tornado hits, it’s usually across the river in West Memphis or it’s out east and it doesn’t really hit midtown. But this wasn’t a tornado so there was no warning. It was just in the middle of the night. The wind came through and ripped up trees and tore up houses—messed up a lot of shit and so the power was out for like 2 months. But we never lost our power. And my friends would come over—nobody could work ‘cause the power was out everywhere. They’d get on their bikes and come over because we had power and we were watching TV with the air on. The first day after it happened, people were kind of excited. ‘Wow, everything’s wiped out!’ And the weather was still breezy after the storm. Then a couple days later the sun came out and it started getting hot and everybody started getting really mad. They’d stop by our house like, ‘You’re the only motherfuckers in town with power.’ ‘Yeah, we’ve been watching the news—oh, that’s right, you don’t get the news.’ They would eventually warm up to us ‘cause it was the only place they could go and chill out and watch TV.
That’s a pretty good window into human nature.
Jack Oblivian: It’s been a few years but I’ve learned the lesson after not paying the electrical bill and having the power go out and having to go a little while with the candle. That really changes your lifestyle for the evening. I’m usually not prepared with a big candles. I just have a few birthday candles. And if I can’t afford the power bill, usually you cant afford much more than just a beer. Theres this young guy down the street—have you ever heard of the bar called the Lamplighter? It’s a small neighborhood bar. For years there’s been the same bartender but recently this guy in his early 30s—he’s like a Goner kid—he somehow got his foot in the door and he’s a bartender there. He has this drink he made up—I haven’t had it and I probably never will, but I guess he likes Vienna sausage and he’s got this drink called a Mozart and its got the juice from the sausage with Pabst. And he actually drinks it. He loves Vienna sausage.
I have a friend who’s a bartender and he made this drink called the Abandoned Couch where there’s whiskey and the juices from the bottom of the tray of limes and then he would take change out of his pocket, put it in the glass, pour Everclear over it and light it to sterilize the coins. When you finished, there was like 18 cents in the bottom.
Jack Oblivian: Oh, God. Try not to swallow the money.
I heard you used pocket change for drum tracks on one of your records.
Jack Oblivian: That’s on the American Slang record I did a few years ago. I was just trying to find a drum sound. I lived in a place at that time where I couldn’t really set up a full drum set and get loud. I wrapped a mic around my neck and I’d tap for the bass drum and hit my hand on my pocket for the snare drum and it had change in it to make a tambourine-like sound. It was easier to play a drum beat doing that than it is sitting behind a drum set. The microphone doesn’t know where it’s coming from as long as it sounds good.
Jim Dickinson said Memphis was about individuals—you couldn’t organize it and that’s why it worked. Do you think that’s true?
Jack Oblivian: I think he’s got something there. I don’t think there’s a machine kind of thing going on. I have a lot of friends who play music and we play together but our music doesn’t really sound alike or anything. A guitar player in my band has his own band—it’s still rock ‘n’ roll but it’s totally different.
Who’s in your band right now?
Jack Oblivian: The guitar player—his band is John Paul Keith and the 1-4-5s and it’s his rhythm section. I had Harlan and Harlan’s drummer play with me for a while but Harlan’s out of the country right now and he’s got a baby. He was in the band. He’s another one—he can play with me and it’s skuzzy rock or whatever,but then in his music it sounds like something that’ll make the ladies take their panties off.
Have you ever actually seen that happen?
Jack Oblivian: I think it’d be Tom Jones or something. I remember my first gig—I was 13 and I played in this parking-lot Southern-rock fest thing in a small town in Tennessee. We did instrumental ‘Paranoid.’ Stuff like that. We weren’t ready for a gig at all but there were these ladies. My cousin said, ‘See those ladies? They’re biker chicks and they’ll show you their tits—just give them the thumbs-up.’ So I gave them the thumbs-up a couple times and all these ladies started pulling their shirts up and jiggling their tits around like big mamas and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Our parents didn’t know we were there. We’d snuck away and we got in trouble when we got back. The police shut the show down because once those rednecks started drinking it got out of hand. But it was pretty exciting.